Starting the New Year with the Old Year

Classical Music Critic

New Year’s resolutions are about looking ahead. But the new year is also a time to try and start out afresh. With that in mind, in this week’s column I catch up on some interesting events late last year which I was unable to review in a timely manner. Yet they are interesting and worthy of a late commentary.

War Requiem
Benjamin Britten, the great 20th century English composer, was born in 1913. So last year saw numerous events commemorating the 100-year anniversary of his birth. One splendid concert was at Symphony Center in November. Charles Dutoit was the guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for three performances of Britten’s “War Requiem.”

This work was begun in 1961, completed in 1962, and had its premiere on May 30, 1962 in Coventry, England. Britten was commissioned to create the work for the dedication of a new cathedral in Coventry, the previous edifice having been bombed during World War II.

The “War Requiem” is a fascinating work on many levels. One of Britten’s many interesting ideas is that for the texts he joined the traditional Latin mass with poetry by Lt. Wilfred Owen. Lt. Owen was 25 years old when on the morning of Nov. 4, 1918 he was killed in action near Ors in northeast France. While most of Britain was celebrating the Armistice a week later, that was the day Owen’s family received news that Wilfred had died.

But he left some of the most piercing and perceptive poetry concerning war as his legacy. Britten studied these and deftly collected texts which offer a textual counterpoint to the Latin texts, making the “War Requiem” a unique composition.

It is scored for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, a mixed chorus, a children’s chorus, a full orchestra, and a chamber orchestra. Because the work is as much about reconciliation as it is about the horrors of war, Britten had in mind that for its premiere the three soloists should represent three of the countries most profoundly affected by World War I. He wanted English tenor Peter Pears, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Unfortunately, the Soviet authorities would not permit Vishnevskaya to participate and the world premiere had Pears, Fisher-Dieskau, and English soprano Heather Harper — she was brought in at the last minute and had little time for preparation. (When the work was later recorded, Britten was able to assemble his three chosen soloists.)

The CSO wanted to honor Britten’s idea of representing these three countries and so the soloists working with Dutoit were Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaya, English tenor John Mark Ainsley and German baritone Matthias Goerne. The Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Duain Wolfe and the Chicago Children’s choir was prepared and conducted by Josephine Lee.

The results were splendid, with Dutoit leading his large forces with energy and nuance, in an intermissionless performance of about 80 minutes.

Pavlovskaya sang with brilliance and striking warmth, as many sopranos imbue this work with a rather cold and detached sound, perhaps because it’s the soprano who has the more distant text (the Latin), and the men who have the more personal text (the Owen poetry).

Ainsley sang with clarity and ease, drawing out Owen’s texts with nice details. Goerne’s sound was splendid, and he worked well with Ainsley in those sections where the two men sing together. His only fault was in English diction. Occasionally the English words would seem to disappear. This was a greater problem than it should have been, because the supertitle screen stopped working early on during the performance.

The chorus had full-blooded sound and excellent blending. The children’s chorus, placed on the two far edges of the upper balcony (along with an organ), were lovely. The placement worked perfectly, creating the impression that the children’s voices were like angels from heaven. It was a marvelous performance.

American Chamber Opera’s Carmen
One of Chicago’s small but energetic opera companies is the relatively new American Chamber Opera (ACO). In November they offered four performances of a version of Bizet’s “Carmen.” I attended the first of these four, which took place at International House, 1414 E. 59th St.

The “American” in American Chamber Opera seems to represent the fact that the group always performs in English. This version, created by members of the ACO, set Carmen in contemporary Chicago with Don Jose (here, simply “Jose”) as a policeman and Escamillo as a boxer. It worked well enough, although the move to Las Vegas (where instead of smuggling, there is a card-counting scheme) seemed odd.

Many of the roles were double cast. I heard Silvie Jensen as Carmen (Amanda Runge sang the role in some of the other performances) and Garrett Johannsen as Don Jose (with Benjamin De Los Monteros singing on other evenings).

Jensen has a pleasing voice and effectively wrapped herself around all of Carmen’s famous melodies. She offered a sultry portrayal, fitting for the role even if she did a few things on stage I cannot mention in a family newspaper.

Johannsen was not as effective, singing with little force or volume and displaying stiff acting. Brandon Brown’s Escamillo was engaging, even though his lowest notes sometimes disappeared. Dana Cambell’s Michaela was charming, sung with sweetness and lovely, airy high notes.

Director Rose Freeman did what she could in a production with nearly no props or sets. Her most memorable idea was to have one of Carmen’s cohorts pregnant at the beginning, and later toting around her baby. Music Director Steven Haschke conducted an eight-piece chamber ensemble which at times was limp and regularly played out of sync.